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Text Commentary

Direct Address in Vaudeville Performance
by Jeremy Butler `

Vaudeville was a style of theatrical presentation that was built around song-and-dance numbers, comedy routines, and short dramatic skits and tableaux (the cast freezing in dramatic poses). Vaudeville was at its most popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but by the 1920s was eclipsed by the competing mass entertainment forms of radio and the movies. Even though vaudeville as a medium no longer exists, the style of performance it used survives in many television forms. (For more on vaudeville, see the Library of Congress’s multimedia anthology titled “American Variety Stage,” 

Significantly, vaudeville performance does not demand that we forget the presence of the actor within the guise of the character. That is, vaudeville performance frequently reminds us that we are watching a performance and that the characters before us are not real people. This is largely achieved through the direct address of the viewer. Vaudeville actors often look straight at the audience, perform toward them, and even make comments to them—as can be seen in this clip, from a 1920s silent film in which the Gonzalez Brothers direct their dance routine to the audience while standing in front of a painted backdrop. Vaudeville’s direct address violates the theatrical concept of an invisible “fourth wall” that separates audience from characters. In conventional theatrical performances, we observe the action without being observed. In vaudeville, our presence is repeatedly acknowledged. And if we are acknowledged as viewers, then the entire illusion of the fiction is undermined. The naturalistic concept of the believable character becomes immaterial to the vaudevillian. 

This Commentary is related to the following Clips:
Vaudeville Performance by the Gonzalez Brothers by Gonzalez Brothers (1920) Vaudeville performance by the Gonzalez Brothers.